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Concertos for the Forest:
Walter Tilgner's European Sound Images

By Hans Ulrich Werner

We listen to an old lacquer shellac recording from 1936. Through clicking and crackling we hear birdsongs and environmental sound. Is this just a nostalgic sound memory, an idyllic place? No, the early document reveals a diversity of bird voices, an interplay between the habitat's daily rhythm and a rich listening space. These were signs of an intact environment. In the annual reports regarding the status of the forest today, the sound is not mentioned, but for Walter Tilgner they a mirror and an audible fingerprint of change. Cultural noise, he observes, masks and endangers the species and their rhythm, "The bird concert has become less rich in the last years," he says, "and what I have recorded 10 or 15 years ago, I can not replicate today."

Walter Tilgner is a bioacoustician, one of Middle Europe's best forest photographers and sound recordists — well known for his binaural "Sound Head" Recordings. He used digital recording technology very early in the 80's and published his first Waldkonzert (Forest Concerto) on the Wergo label in 1985. Tilgner was born in Mähren and came to Germany after the war. He studied Biology in Frankfurt while pursuing an internship at the Forstamt der Stadt Frankfurt. Since then he has recorded natural worlds with camera and microphone and worked until his retirement in 1998 with the Bodensee Natur Museum in Konstanz. Recently, Walter Tilgner produced his tenth compact disc, featuring the "King of the Forest," the sounds of red deer (the family known as elk in North America), again with Wergo in Mainz.

"Waldkonzert is like a composition, because I edit an idealized state of the forest, which is not existing outside. Out of many scenes I select and compose an interesting process along the change of seasons. With binaural Sound Head recording, I get a strong feeling of space. You hear and feel how far away a bird is, whether it is singing above or below me. Selecting and editing, that is all I do, there is no additional manipulation and mixing. Through the recordings, I bring the birds into my and other peoples' homes and when I close my eyes I believe to be in the forest. That is my aim. I want to dream, to evoke memories, to believe I am there, outside under the trees."

Tilgner's productions aim beyond the classification of single sounds and animal voices, as he integrates them into the overall soundscape. His recordings simulate a holistic picture of the ecosystem of the forest, as an ensemble. For a moment, while recording, he becomes a part of the acoustic environment: through intensive listening and reflection. Especially in the early morning situations, he is a silent, stealthy observer and listening artist: part of nature and sound. Many thoughts touch him in this nearly meditative phase of a day. In that moment, he is a part and apart from nature — through his ability to reflect on a structural and meta-level about what he hears. Sound artists, like Walter Tilgner (or many of the other friendly competitors), frame the acoustic picture for a moment and in that moment of creation reveal in their art. Beyond this moment there is skill and editing.

Like a film director, Tilgner knows many different locations: places, forests, transitions, shores and beaches, mountain meadows and wetlands. His binaural recordings appear to be documentation but, through selection of time and space, they are an orchestration with and in the landscape, a tuning into the environmental space. The Sound Head integrates small granular movements of the listening experience. When birdsong reduces during a day-and-night-cycle, the whispering of the trees gets into the foreground of perception. In a soundscape, figure and ground relations are always in flux. This is especially apparent in his CD, Waldesrauschen (Whispering Forest). . . more energy wave than bioacoustic theatre and drama.


In other recordings, Tilgner emphasizes the songlines of special birds, like the calls of cranes on the island of Rügen in the Baltic sea. There, he listened to one of the most impressive natural theatres in middle Europe. The collective choir of cranes melts into the drone of the sea and solo voices of other sea birds. Since the analogue recordings of the 70's, he has built up a woodpecker library and has distinguished different acoustic patterns within families and groups. In recent years, he has often featured the nightingale and the blue bird, because of the variety of songs, contexts, and variations in their voices. The nightingale is mythical bird, one that has accompanied European culture for centuries: in fairytales, paintings and poems, in Beethoven's Pastorale and Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale. The nightingale's song and sound are a moving polystylistical improvisation, a never ending story of rhapsodic patterns. The bird is a virtuoso in expression, arranging song according to social habits and habitat: advertising for a mate, territorial encounter and nesting, varying according to seasonal and daily rhythms. Tilgner's song of the nightingale is embedded in the dawn chorus. The acoustic life at the shore of Bodensee is audible: wind, water, distant bells and an early departing fisherman with a motorized boat.

Tilgner seeks holistic acoustic situations, touching on the romantic notion of the unity with nature. He emphasizes a documentation of nature, as authentic as possible, with a high resolution in recording and binaural simulation. His technological background is substantial and his work a sequence of slowly evolving sound reliefs. His way of recording produces impressive audio pictures, with breadth and depth, even on a modest sound system. Such sound could be misunderstood in the dead end of 'Brave New Sonic World". In this case, sound ecology would the muse-like, naive, idyllic niche of an acoustic picture book.

Tilgner's binaural recordings from German forests and European wetlands are sound images and sound compositions that document, entertain and relax at the same time. They warn of the loss of the audible quality of environmental topography. The idyllic niche he lays out, or simulates, recalls a counterworld. The sound of the forest is, for Walter Tilgner, an indicator of its biological atmosphere and condition, its health as it were, which today is threatened with extinction through the enormous growth of social and cultural noise. Through such implications, Tilgner's recordings are provocative ecological messages: acoustic backgrounds, academic material and musical compositions.

Tilgner's audio pictures reveal a vivid and expressive world; he is a contemporary Papageno, the media bird catcher of today. While Papageno still made good business, the sound of the forest is rarely a major breakthrough, as Walter Tilgner and his compatriots have yet to be acknowledged by appreciation of the musical or compositional aspects of their work. To the public, as well as the musical regulators, such work is by definition merely documentary.

German music copyright law has not yet acknowledged wildlife recordings as "musical" creations, although the recordings of natural environments are commercially viable, selling millions of copies. Natural sound product assumes many forms: from animal voices with synthesizer, Satie's piano patterns with loons, a one hour real-time soundscape from Cape Cod, an African waterhole through the course of a day, soundscapes from the Antarctic, forest sounds with composed orchestral music around the rhythms of nature. There are as many names for recordings... Solitudes, Natural Sound, Earth Sound, Living Music, Universal music. There are soundscapes and acoustic images for relaxation, contemplation, acoustical wallpaper (instead of Musak), sound for education and media, in new age, esoteric and techno contexts. Meanwhile, Walter Tilgner is part of the rave scene as well. Although, you can't find more different worlds and appearance than Tilgner in his ranger clothes and a youngster with a skateboard, backward baseball cap and baggy pants! The magazine, Süddeutsche Zeitung, quotes Rene who, after daylong raves, chills out with bird songs from Walter Tilgner, "Well," says Rene, "I have not been in the forest for a long time and I am not really interested. But with CD, through headphones, I can become addicted." This new sound culture is an ambivalent world: nature sounds are served like delicacies on a platter; endangered and vanishing species, as decoration and audio lifestyle background. On the other hand, recorded sounds of the environment underlie a growing trend of commercial use of a former free good - sound and silence, which now, as water and air, are rapidly becoming valuable commododies, fit for marketing.

Tilgner emphasizes a more experiential approach to recording, one that might lead people into the familiar forests of their own neighborhoods-- with a different notion of listening. He does not travel to exotic remote areas. His recordings relate to regions like the Bodensee Area — the Lake Michigan of Germany — where he lives, or to the wetlands in Austria, where his family came from. Different from other soundscape composers, who transform the sounds of forest into electronic language, Tilgner's recordings of nature indicate, through exclusion and pseudo-natural painting, the "social genesis of nature." Aircraft noise over a forest area is part of his truth of sound. This relation of signal to noise ratio is not so much a technical consideration. It hints at a society for whom nature is not only to buy, but to sell.


People of today benefit from that media "nature," because it allows them to separate their personal spaces from cultural noise in a complicated world. The natural rhythms and cycles become interesting challenges for acoustic design in the city. And vice versa: natural recordings point to nature and rural spaces that are very strongly deformed by noise and social structures. So in that sense, natural sound has already subtle tracks of culture in it, and at the same time, somehow, changes our perception of that culture and its relation to nature. So, Natural Sound recordings are a contradiction and a paradox, hopefully challenging ones. The critical review of noisy landscape should not be the end complaint of loss of silence, but the beginning of an "Awareness to action." Walter Tilgner states, "I don't document situations for a museum and say, 'this is not here any longer.' It is just the opposite for me: they should sensitize for the rest to what we still have. I think even the best recordings cannot substitute the event and life experience outside, it is just a digital copy. But the more you know and feel about nature, the more intensive our experience and relation there."

Tilgner's recordings are comparable to and distinctive from traditional scientific recording of individual species, as well from the stylized library of sound for media. Even when presenting a single bird and song, he includes the background, the context, the acoustic network of voices around the one preferred source of sound and listening. He narrates and describes a sometimes mundane, sometimes spectacular situation. He documents a flow, a stream of audio consciousness in time and space and at the same time a very precise, yet simulated environmental picture. These have value for other purposes like landscape planning or noise abatement documentation. They are valid for more than contemplative listening and bioacoustical discourse. As regards the latter, Tilgner's recordings are not generally included within the European scientific community's fold of research. Perhaps the focus on the monadic signal, the single motive and pattern, is still closer to the 19th century idea of morphology and analytical approach. The parabolic microphone, a useful tool, is an icon for the researcher's concentration on the singular event of content framed accordingly. Even animal sound in wildlife television documentaries, a very successful genre, reflects this in a popular way. Walter Tilgner's sound, in most given moments, is a holistic and sometimes chaotic surround field — a 360-degree world with noise and sound, song and life, from primal sounds of the creator — "Urtöne der Schöpfung" — to very complex neighborhoods of the morning bird concerto.

Tilgner goes on to say, "Nature's song is a message, a signal from animal to animal and has deep meaning for their coexistence. For us humans, the soundscape of an old German forest has a peaceful and calming effect — for the birds, the other animals and the trees it is very different. It has two sides: the living together of many particular species, plants and animals, and humans, even those not audible in the center of the sound picture itself, and the complementary presence of competition, a fight for space, light, water and nutrition. This battle is even more intensive when the individual creatures touch each other's space, when their conditions of living are similar. On the other hand, trees grant each other and many animals shadow, structure and a complementary position. Only in its entity can a collective forest counterpart the storms and only within the complex network of trees is a fruitful green, favorable climate is available. Both competition and symbiosis are audible within the sound, which is as rich and diversified as the biological community."

As said before, Tilgner's audio pictures reveal a vivid and expressive world. The silence of nature (of life in general) seems to be an illusion; silence and contemplation is more a romantic projection than anything else, very much man made. Tilgner's notion of silence is provoked by sound, but ends up being found in internal experiences: sonic meditation. Intensive listening for a long time, recording without motion, and acoustic awareness are only possible when the recordist stays still. Be it the forest, for a man like Tilgner, or the urban flaneur in big cities, everything and everybody "moves to the beat." Only the listener holds a position of meditative luxury of non-action and pure perception. When the recipient later listens to the recordings in his own world and context, he creates new associations and functions with it, maybe as acoustic wallpaper, or as the sound retrieves deep memories and notions in the time travel that is a form of personal sound biography.

Between documentation for science and the mimetic gesture of programmatic music and musique concrete, we might need a third ear for a virtual space of Tilgner's recordings. In that sense, it is important whether we hear the song of the blue bird on a lacquer disc, on a CD, or outside in nature. This may motivate the director of a broadcast archive to integrate many of Walter Tilgner's voices into his library. Perhaps as background for all manner of radiophonic applications, as raw material for a planned concerto for Rotbauchunke and Tüpfelralle, as material of special interest programs in cultural radio and, who knows, as a document for the world to come, or as symbol of the lost acoustic horizon.

About the Author - Hans Ulrich Werner is a radio producer and soundscape recordist and composer, based in Germany.

Schizophrenia v. L'object Sonore - For a counterpoint to this view of nature sound recordings, see Francisco Lopez's essay. [WEBPAGE]

The Big Picture - Peruse other soundscape writings. [WEBPAGE]

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